THE BLOG

Shahbaz Bhatti: My Hero, My Colleague, My Friend and Brother

02/03/2016 12:47 GMT | Updated 02/03/2017 10:12 GMT

Five years ago today, Pakistan's Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs, my friend Shahbaz Bhatti, was gunned down in broad daylight on his way to work. Here is my tribute to him, prepared to be read out today at events in Pakistan to commemorate the fifth anniversary of his assassination:

When I woke up on the morning of 2 March 2011, I turned on the radio and switched on my computer, to check my emails and hear the news. The headlines brought me the news that I had long feared I would one day hear, but hoped and prayed I never would - the assassination of my close friend, Shahbaz Bhatti. I was shocked, deeply saddened but not surprised.

For five years, from 2004-2009, I had the great privilege of working very closely with Shahbaz Bhatti. It was while he was a grassroots activist, before he was elected to Parliament and before he was appointed Minister, though I continued to keep in close contact with him even after he entered the government, and my colleagues in Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) continued to work with him when he was Minister. Shahbaz, along with his mentor, national hero Group Captain (Rtd) Cecil Chaudhry, was CSW's closest partner in Pakistan. I spoke to him every week by phone, sometimes several times a week. I travelled with him. I knew the threats he faced, as an activist and then even more so as Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs.

I have many memories of Shahbaz between 2004 and 2009, when he was placed on Pakistan's ''exit control list'', prohibiting him from leaving the country, and when he was being arrested or threatened with arrest. I remember speaking to him by phone almost daily during certain crisis points, and being constantly impressed by his calmness and courage. Of course, at times he was fearful, and with very good reason. But the mark of courage is not an absence of fear, but a matter of how one handles fear. Shahbaz never allowed fear to paralyse or overcome him.

On one occasion we missed a bomb in Islamabad by five minutes.

On another occasion, Shahbaz took me to meet a seven-year-old girl who had been raped and tortured because she came from a Christian family. Shahbaz was helping her and her family, because no one else would.

In 2007, a Christian community in Charsadda, in the North-West Frontier Province, received an ultimatum from extremists: convert to Islam or face the consequences. The night the deadline expired, I phoned Shahbaz to ask for an update. To my surprise, he told me he was in Charsadda. The community were terrified, he said, and they expected an attack at any moment, so he had gone to be with them. That was typical of Shahbaz. But he also told me that the community had been praying. They felt alone, they felt that the rest of the world didn't know, or didn't care. "Thank God you have called," he said. "The fact that you have telephoned means I can tell them that someone does know, does care, is praying for them and is speaking for them."

In October 2009, Shahbaz came to London to address the annual conference of Christian Solidarity Worldwide. As usual, his first request was for prayer. He summed up his life's vocation in these words: "I live for religious freedom, and I am ready to die for this cause. We have a commitment to bring a change in the lives of people. We will bring a change in the life of those who are living in darkness, we will bring a change in the lives of those who don't have a hope, and we will bring a smile on the faces of those living under severe harassment and victimisation ..."

He continued: "This is the key objective of my life - to live for those who are voiceless, who are suffering. We need to change the plight of those who are living in the darkness of persecution, victimisation, and that is the commitment we made, to bring justice for those who are denied justice."

Shahbaz challenged head-on the "forces of intolerance", promising that, in unity with others, "we will not allow you to capture our country". He called on his audience to join with him in this struggle: "Let's pledge that we will work together to promote harmony and tolerance. We will bridge the gaps among different faiths. We will strengthen this world with the message of peace and tolerance."

At the heart of Shahbaz's work, particularly as minister, was an effort to reform, or repeal, Pakistan's notorious blasphemy laws which have been so widely misused with such disastrous consequences for many.

But it was this campaign that in the end cost Shahbaz his own life. Four months before his murder, he recorded an interview with the BBC, for broadcast in the event of his death. He said: "These Taliban threaten me. But I want to share that I believe in Jesus Christ, who has given his own life for us. I know what is the meaning of the Cross and I am following the Cross. I am ready to die for a cause. I am living for my community and suffering people, and I will die to defend their rights."

Those words should stand as his epitaph. Shahbaz Bhatti was for me, as he was for millions of Pakistanis and many other people around the world, a hero. He was a man of extraordinary courage, faith and personal commitment, but also of immense humility and humour. There are calls for his beatification, and I hope that in time these calls will be heard, for this man of great virtue, faith and courage, this modern-day martyr, would be a symbol of hope for all those persecuted for their faith. In my own personal faith and my journey into the Catholic Church, Shahbaz inspired me immensely too, and I have told his story in my book, From Burma to Rome: A Journey into the Catholic Church, which I have also dedicated to him. In the dedication, I have said that I believe he is now "smiling from heaven".

Let us all, in our own ways, continue to work to ensure that the values for which Shahbaz lived, and died, did not die with him but live on, in all of us, and that those values - freedom of religion or belief for all; peace, harmony and respect between people of different faiths; justice and equality for all - triumph over the voices of intolerance, hatred, conflict, terror and injustice, in Pakistan and beyond. In the meantime, let us always remember Shahbaz Bhatti, a man I was privileged to call not just my hero, not just my colleague, but my friend and brother.